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Ellisons by Flashlight?

On the evening of Wednesday, May 30, 1989, Tim Farmer and I made a quick trip to Ellisons Cave, Georgia, to bounce the 586 foot drop in Fantastic Pit. No, we didn't go with flashlights and no hardhats, but believe me, others have.

We'd heard reports of a group of alleged rock climbers who'd seen Fantastic Pit in the coffee table book Underground Worlds and come to do the pit the previous weekend. Dan Twilley, Neeld Messner had been among those who had encountered this determined group in the cave. The rock climbers were equipped with one set of climbing gear, which they planned to ferry up and down the pit on haul cord. Dan loaned them his rack, no doubt to prevent a descent by Figure Eight, and they proceeded to drop it down the pit. According to Neeld, the climbers managed to extricate themselves sometime in the very wee hours of the next morning.

Soon after entering the cave the following Wednesday, Tim and I found evidence of this group. At the top of the 125 foot Warm-up Pit we found the remains of a candle, and some half-burned paper goods. At the bottom of the pit was a Rapide quick link that had apparently been dropped. There was no doubt about it. We were on the trail.

Picking up this trash and an abandoned pair of gloves, we proceeded down the Warm-up Pit and up the 30 foot rope to the Attic. Here we encountered a trashed garbage bag, which we picked up. At the top of Fantastic, we found another garbage bag and a chicken loop. Using the rope that was already rigged, we rappelled the 586 to the bottom of Fantastic, and found a bolt in the floor of the pit! Apparently these guys wanted tension on the rope as they climbed, and used their haul cord to pull down on the rope from above--or at least that's the only explanation we could imagine. Cigarette butts were found in strategic locations where people had waited to climb or rappel. Before climbing out, we picked up a beer can that was neatly sitting on a rock, an empty cigarette pack, and a hand-drawn sketch of part of the cave. I couldn't help wondering: just who drew this map? And was this how these poor sods found their way in?

This isn't the first time I've picked up beer cans in Ellisons, and griped about cigarette butts, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Coming down the mountain from Ellisons in March, I passed a group of with flashlights, a big coil of yellow poly rope, and a baby in a backpack carrier. I mentioned this insanity to Buddy Lane and Steve Hudson, and neither was surprised. Yahoos are going into Ellisons all the time, they said.

It's true, not just in Ellisons but all over the South. We've got stoned morons talking their girlfriends into rappelling into South Pittsburgh Pit, and thinking the resulting rescue is all good fun. We're finding beer bottles at the bottom of Surprise Pit, and condoms in Mystery Falls. And every time there's a cave rescue, it ends up as the top story on every Eyewitness News in town, landowners get nervous, and caves get closed. Some say that we've got to reach out to these would-be cavers, publish articles in newspapers and national magazines extolling our expertise and our address. Some cavers just get mad and try to keep the caves as secret as possible. I don't know which approach is going to save us. Probably neither.

I do know that we've entered a new era of caving, a time when like it or not, our vertical caves are becoming nearly as vulnerable to trespass as the old horizontal standards. Every kid who's ever been rock climbing thinks he or she is ready to go vertical caving. And our own high-and-mighty attitudes, our belief (right or wrong) that only we cavers are trained and entitled to see these special places, doesn't do a thing to stop them.

Tim and I walked down the mountain through the deep silence of a Wednesday night, thinking hard about flashlights and poly ropes and beer cans in Ellisons.

Addendum, 2011

Tragically, two youg men from a college outdoor club died of hypothermia this year in the Warm-up Pit after rappelling down to a ledge in the waterfall.

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